Laguna Pueblo, from which she hails, is a tribal nation with origins stretching back thousands of years. Located 45 miles west of Albuquerque, it consists of over 7,000 members. In the mid-1980s this writer spent quite a bit of time at Laguna with friends in the village of Seama while working as an attorney on the Zuni Reservation. At her confirmation hearing, Haaland reflectively noted with eloquence and reverence the historical fact that the U.S. Capitol sits on the ancient homelands of three Native Tribes—the Piscataway, Nacotchtank, and Anacostan. This of course brings to mind that all of the United States is Indigenous land—indeed “Stolen Land”—and as one tribal representative put it, “how the U.S. got started” remains “the elephant in the room.” Of the Tribes mentioned by Haaland, only the Piscataway still exists as a tribal entity. Her statements reminded this writer of signs at Indigenous-sponsored protests supporting immigrant rights that read, “No one is illegal on stolen land.” Further, it must be noted that at the hearings, Haaland wore Indigenous dress which sent an empowering political message to Native people, in particular to Indigenous women. This also emphasized that the Indigenous are separate peoples with a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government that must be maintained and strengthened. The DOI is tasked to uphold the federal government’s sacred treaty obligations with 574 tribal nations. In the course of her confirmation hearings, which began in February, Haaland spoke in Keresan, the tribal language of Laguna Pueblo. This pointed out the importance of Indigenous languages and immersion language programs initiated by many tribal nations. There are currently 150 Native tongues still spoken in the U.S. Historically, the federal government has spent more money purposely eliminating Native languages than saving them. This was also another function of the DOI. Others in the Native community mused that Haadland’s position “gives her the power to right some very deep wrongs done to Native tribes.” Immediate concerns are the need for more land, assistance for tribal economies, and an easier process to petition for federal recognition, and, of course, the matter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Haaland led the way with other Indigenous representatives—Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation), Tom Cole (Chickasaw Nation), and Markkwayne Mullin (Cherokee Nation)—in passing legislation for MMIW in September of last year. In reference to righting “some very deep wrongs,” there is still the issue of the defrauding of billions of dollars from Indian landowners in the Cobell v. Salazar case to the tune of, by very credible estimates, $179 billion by the DOI. This was pared down and settled by the Obama administration for the disgraceful, comparatively paltry sum of $ 3.4 billion, with $1.4 billion of that spread out to 490,000 individual Indians, in the form of checks ranging from $500 to $1,500—not even enough to buy a decent automobile. This fraud on Native landowners was for DOI oil, timber, and grazing contracts dating from 1887. This was the record of the DOI with the Indigenous and the continuing fraud in the disgraceful settlement orchestrated by Obama.
Today I was honored to join the first of three Tribal consultations @Interior is hosting on funding from the American Rescue Plan. Not only will these funds help weather this storm, they will also address the long standing issues that put Native communities so far behind. pic.twitter.com/Hyd2SlGU4O— Secretary Deb Haaland (@SecDebHaaland) March 25, 2021
There are many roadblocks for Haaland to surmount on the path to continued progress. There will be those in government who will attempt to engage in open and behind-the-scenes obstruction. Several years ago, a friend of mine from the Ho-Chunk Nation recounted how he tried to communicate with his tribal representative and was taken aback when told he would have to go through an FBI security clearance to make contact. Meanwhile, the new “fierce” warrior Cabinet Secretary certainly hit the ground running with a decision, just a few days after her swearing-in ceremony, withdrawing a Trump administration opinion that held the section of the Missouri River flowing through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation—the land of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation—belonged to the state of North Dakota. For decades, legal precedent held that the Missouri riverbed belonged to the MHA Nation. The reversal of the Andrew Jacksonian-type Trump decision which gave North Dakota ownership of mineral rights under that portion of the Missouri River flowing through the Fort Berthold Reservation was a clear and outrageous violation of tribal sovereignty that the Biden administration has vowed to uphold. The Department of Interior under Haaland is getting off to a great start by sending a signal salvo in the 500-year-old Indigenous struggle for justice. Haaland has her work cut out for her, but she has the confidence of Indian Country and our unwavering, steadfast support. Further, we must be mindful that what is good for Native America is good for all of America.
During a visit to her father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery today, @SecDebHaaland paid her respects to the servicewomen laid to rest on these hallowed grounds. This #WomensHistoryMonth we honor history both past and present. pic.twitter.com/0gW4ilpF7w— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) March 19, 2021
Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He was an organizer and delegate to the First and Second Intercontinental Indian Conferences held in Quito, Ecuador and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Recently, he has been an active participant and reporter in the Standing Rock struggle in North Dakota. He is an attorney and is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty. He is also writing a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war of the late 20th century. He is also the recipient of several Eagle Awards by the Tennessee Native American Eagle Organization and a former Director of Native American Legal Departments and a Tribal Public Defender.
This article originally appeared on People’s World. It is published under a Creative Commons license.
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